Families Can Save Close to $100,000 Under New Rules
By Hyman G. Darling, Esq.
At long last, Massachusetts has passed a law increasing the estate-tax exemption. Under the prior law, if a person died with less than $1 million, there was no estate tax due. However, if they died with more than $1 million, the $1 million exemption basically disappeared, and taxes were due on all assets back to the first dollar. This includes assets such as real estate, stocks, bonds, retirement plans, life insurance, annuities, etc.
Under the new law, the exemption has increased to $2 million, but this is a true exemption. Therefore, if a person dies with less than $2 million, there is no estate tax due. If their estate is greater than $2 million, the tax will be calculated on all assets, but basically, the first $2 million is exempt from tax.
This does have the effect of taxing all assets at a bit higher rate, but the exemption of $2 million basically applies to a credit. The credit is $99,600, which would have been the tax on the first $2 million. In other words, if a person dies under the new law, and if the estate was greater than $2 million, the family basically saves $99,600, which would have been the tax on the first $2 million. The law is retroactive to any individual who dies on or after Jan. 1, 2023. Therefore, if you are reading this article, you have the benefit of the increased exemption amount.
Under the new law, there is also a provision that attempts to impose an estate tax on out-of-state property, which was not the case under the old law. The new law will allocate the tax and charge only a proportionate share of the estate tax as it applies to the Massachusetts property, but the out-of-state property is included, thus increasing the total of the taxable estate. This probably will be challenged by an individual who has a significant amount of out-of-state property, which would therefore increase their estate tax in Massachusetts. However, it may be some time before the litigation on this matter makes its way through the court system.
For a married couple, they each now have an exemption of $4 million. However, they must use the exemption, or it is otherwise lost. For instance, if one spouse dies, leaving all assets to the surviving spouse, there is no tax because the unlimited marital deduction allows a spouse to receive an unlimited amount of money from the deceased spouse. If this is the case, then the person who died did not use their $2 million exemption, and the assets are then in the surviving spouse’s estate. If that surviving spouse has greater than $2 million, there will be a tax, and only the exemption will be allowable on the second to die.
Therefore, the first spouse should consider establishing a trust with up to $2 million in assets. The trust fund will be available for the surviving spouse, and that spouse may receive income and principal at the discretion of the trustee. At the death of the second spouse, the funds remaining in this trust will pass to the children or other contingent beneficiaries without any estate tax, and the surviving spouse will still have their $2 million exemption available. Thus, they have sheltered $4 million of assets to pass to beneficiaries, which is a significant change over the prior law.
An alternative would be to have $2 million of assets left outright to the children on the death of the first spouse, but then the surviving spouse will not have availability of those assets to use during their lifetime. The use of the trust is more advisable since it is flexible in allowing the surviving spouse to have access to income and principal, but not have those assets taxed in their estate.
An additional benefit of utilization of a trust is that the funds may be held in the trust for the benefit of children until they attain desired ages when they may be more mature to receive their funds for distribution. The funds may also be distributed in intervals such as one-third at age 25, one-third at age 30, and one-third at age 35, with also giving the trustee discretion to utilize funds for the children for their health, maintenance, education, support, etc.
While the increase in the exemption has finally increased, it is still not as desirable as many other states that have either no estate tax or a significantly higher exemption. The federal exemption is currently $12.92 million for each person who dies as a U.S. citizen, but this amount is proposed to be reduced in 2026 to approximately half of this amount unless Congress extends the higher exemption amount.
In any event, this is a good time to review all estate -planning documents to be sure they are up to date, including a will, a healthcare proxy, a power of attorney, and any other estate-planning documents a person may have. Of course, use of the new tax credit should be considered to reduce or eliminate the tax.
Hyman Darling, a shareholder at Bacon Wilson and chair of the firm’s Estate Planning and Elder Law department, is recognized as the area’s preeminent estate planner, with extensive experience with all aspects of estate planning, trusts, tax law, probate and estates, guardianships, special-needs trusts and planning, elder law, and long-term care planning, and additional specialties including adoption and real estate; (413) 781-0560.